Grady Byrd of Ocean Springs has enjoyed a long career that has centered around his love of illustration.
“The one good thing about this profession is as long as you have fingers and your eyes, you can do it forever. It’s a compulsion,” Byrd, 80, said. “When you don’t draw, you feel real bad, and when you do draw, you feel good. It’s that simple.”
The size of his body of work is evident in “Retrospective,” a show that opened last month in the MGCCC Jackson County Fine Arts Gallery in Gautier. The show will hang through Oct. 29. The gallery is open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays.
This is his second show at the gallery. His first was in 2011 shortly after Marcus “Marc” Poole discovered Byrd. Poole is an art instructor and gallery director at the community college, and he met Byrd where the illustrator sets up a table each year in front of the Villa Maria during the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival.
A native of Bogue Chitto, Byrd’s talent was recognized at a young age when he was awarded an art scholarship to Mississippi College.
“I decided to join the Marine Corps, and I got to go all over the world instead,” he said.
He was a staff artist for “Leatherneck” magazine and later a combat artist for “Camp Lejeune Globe.” He said he learned a lot about drawing and illustration during his years in the Corps.
After serving seven years, Byrd left the Marine Corps. He was able to transition his job to civil service, moving to Keesler Air Force Base in 1967. He and his family settled in Ocean Springs.
“My main job was doing illustrations for ‘Keesler News.’ You were told what is needed for a story, and then I had to come up with a way to illustrate it,” Byrd said. “I got all the hard assignments like child abuse or alcoholism. I had to come up with ways to depict the subjects subtly.”
While he had a full time day job, he would work at nights at home producing his art that went to galleries, including in New Orleans and one he shared with renowned artist Emmitt Thames in the Hansboro community of Gulfport.
Byrd developed an original “water-black” style in his drawings that was featured in “Today’s Art,” a trade magazine published in New York. As a result, there was an elevation of black and white acceptance with representation in prominent fine art galleries and museums and unprecedented sale prices.
Byrd, for the most part, has produced black and white art because he is color blind.
“I was so bad that it couldn’t be ranked. I never had to learn my colors. I focused on being a black and white illustrator,” he said.
One of Byrd’s most renowned pieces is a portrait of Mother Teresa. He had a vision of the nun in 1984 while in his mother’s hospital room. The portrait he created has been embraced by the Catholics for widespread use, and it lead to him creating a commemorative poster of Pope John Paul II for his second pastoral visit to the United States in 1987. The original mixed media painting now hangs in the New Orleans Archdioceses’ foyer and has been appraised at $25,000.
Byrd retired from civil service in 1987. He work has continued to win awards at art exhibitions and be featured in magazines and books. His latest honor was the inclusion in the National Museum of the Marine Corps for the combat art he created while on assignment to the Dominican Republic.
For more information, go to www.gradybyrd.com.